Places That Rock or Don’t: The New Gusto

Gusto is a so-called “family restaurant”–the type I attempted to define in this post, and perhaps my favorite of all the family restaurants, including the infamous Cockboy of Nagano Prefecture.

A Gusto once existed at a location exactly close enough to my apartment for me to still reluctantly consider going there if I was hungry while still being inconveniently far. By and by, it was demolished and replaced by a much nicer, udon shop which, even with the distance, elicited little debate; it’s worth the trip.

I was happy enough with this change. The udon shop is cheaper, tastier, and has friendlier staff and customers. Not to mention you get your food immediately. You can hardly complain. But at the same time, the vanishing of Gusto had left a hole in my heart somewhere between the ones left by Peggy Lee and the untimely canceling of “Gargoyles” in the ’90s. You could spend your entire lunch break listing Gusto’s faults, but there’s no denying that Marukame Udon, while ultimately superior, abandoned some of Gusto’s finer selling points. The udon shop may be commended for its singularity of purpose. “We sell udon here,” they proclaim with every grain of their being. The menu has about six things, all of them one form of udon or another. The “kitchen” is an assembly line of noodlework with no fewer than five people at all times, hard at work forging flour and water into people’s awesome dinner. Or lunch. This assembly line, it is the centerpiece of the entire restaurant. No matter where you sit, it will strike your field of vision so that there may be no mistaking–this is where they make udon. Verily, Marukame Udon is the only place that needs to make udon in the entire town. My old manager at Quizno’s assured me one cynical afternoon that this was the correct way to make a restaurant, and that Quizno’s with its five thousand varieties of sandwich, many of them defined by their sauce alone, was running itself into the ground.

“Take Five Guys,” he would say. “All they got on the menu is burger, cheeseburger, bacon burger, bacon cheeseburger. It’s brilliant.”

The menu at Gusto–any Gusto–is enormous in three dimensions. Remember those Waldo books from our childhood, the kind that you could use as a lunch tray when the time came? Well, Gusto’s menu is bigger than that, and features page after page of glamourous, glossy photos of each food item available. There’s a little of everything. Hamburger? Got it. Cheeseburger? Got it. Salad? Got it. Korean bibimbap? They’ve got that too. You can order pizza, minestrone soup, squid tentacles, sushi, and french fries in the same damn meal. The dessert menu is ridiculously extensive, and varies significantly on a seasonal basis. If Marukame is great for its singularity of purpose, then Gusto is great in its own exclusive way for offering colorful pandemonium. It doesn’t know what the hell restaurant it is, so it just offers everything it can think of to avoid being embarrassed.

Laugh if you will, but sometimes I daresay that’s just what people want–a little bit of everything. Sometimes you don’t know what you want, you just know you don’t want to cook. These are the times when we can’t commit. “What if I get to the udon only shop and realize I’m not in the mood for udon?” you say. “Then I’d be fucked.” This is Gusto’s time to shine. Don’t decide anything. Just show up. There are pictures to do the deciding for you. What’s more is that they’re open until two in the morning, in case you wasted the evening trying to figure out what you wanted to eat.

“It’s okay,” Gusto says. “You’re only human.”

Really, that should be their slogan.

The important thing is that the good things about Gusto have not been incorporated into the udon shop’s business model. This has been lamentable in its own right. Until recently, that is! Gusto is back and more convenient than ever, having taken over the nearby Bamiyan, which, owned by the same company as Gusto, is merely the “Chinese” take on the “family” “restaurant” (it’s hard to use any one of those words without at least wincing).

Bamiyan is nine parts identical to Gusto, but there’s something about it that just doesn’t work. Whatever magic dust it is they’re sprinkling in the air at Gusto, it’s been replaced with the ashes of death in Bamiyan’s case. I believe it’s a combination of poorer interior design and anti-Chinese racism, which is shockingly rampant. Sweet, middle-aged women, young men, and children alike make constant jabs at the Chinese. I once told my assistant at work a story in which someone had cut in line.

“Oh, like a Chinese,” was her reply. “Sorry, that’s racist. But they cut in line all the time.” Isn’t it funny when people apologize for something and then do that thing again immediately?

But okay, I’ll reel this slugger back in. There’s something about Bamiyan, specifically the Bamiyan that was near my place, that made it fail where a Gusto would succeed. In my most desperate times, I would go there for dinner. The place echoed with the moans of specters. One time I even saw a tumbleweed. The waitress was the surliest, most unwomanly waitress I’d ever seen in Japan, to the point that I questioned her nationality (if this hadn’t been Japan where the boys are just as pretty as the girls, I might’ve questioned her gender instead). Perhaps Japanese part-time job seekers saw themselves as above the likes of Bamiyan and its borderline tolerance of Chinese things (though I suspect the very existence of Bamiyan has been intended as a subtle jab at the Chinese–“Look how terrible Chinese food is.”

So yesterday (as of today), I went to this newly bloomed Gusto to survey how things might have changed. Also I was too lazy to cook or go anywhere that wasn’t on the way home. I noted, however, that if it had still been a Bamiyan, I would have just gone home and had some cereal. I hope that doesn’t make me racist.

The first notable thing about the new Gusto is that it was packed with young, hip people. Or people who believe themselves to be hip, I should say. Also, everything–all of the decor, the wallpaper, the lighting–had been made brighter. The surly Bamiyan waitress remained, but the surliness was gone. She had bounce in her step. Joining her were two young, sexy waitresses. This was progress. They were extremely professional, bowing deeply every time they came to my table or took any action. They could have been ex-maid cafe maids. The only thing that bothered me was that both sexy maids wore the same expression of fatigue throughout the evening. Stress, I thought. The place was packed with youths. But even as business dwindled down, I noted that the maids’ expressions didn’t change. Looking through the menu, I wondered if their faces might not have been reflections of stress, but shame. The words of one of my high school-aged students echoed in my head. She works at Gusto as the Gusto equivalent of a “cook”, which is more or less a glorified “reheater”.

“Working at Gusto,” she said of herself on Monday. “How embarrassing.”

Indeed, these waitresses, surrounded by their own peers, were rigid. My suspicions were confirmed when the food arrived. “Well, here’s your ‘food,'” my waitress seemed to say. “For what it’s worth, anyway.” This also explained the extra-low bowing; They were trying to incorporate apologies into their regular serving duties. The food, you see, looked nothing like the menu pictures. The servings had been magnified dramatically, the color palettes professionally doctored, and garnishes that didn’t really exist garnished profusely. Without going into too many specifics, let me just advise against ordering the “creamy pumpkin salad”. It looked good on the menu, but the reality is that somewhere out there, a little kid is missing a single ice cream scoopful of yellow Play-Doh and scratching his head about it. I was left scratching my head as well. Had the food always been this bad?

The other downfall of Gusto is that, unlike Bamiyan and Marukame Udon, it is a magnet for irritating youths. In Japan, they call such people furyôs–literally, “not goods”–or yankees. One of these is intuitive enough while the other is a bizarre bastardization of English, but welcome to Japanese. These so-called “yankees”, regardless of gender, care about little beyond their own hair, which is meticulously set and reset all throughout the day. The girls dye theirs blonde and wind it up in elaborate curls, trying their best to emulate the look of those creepy dolls with the self-closing eyelids. The boys pluck their eyebrows and grow out mullets or lesbian hair, which they spend most of the day maintaining, ogling their own image in the reflections of their PSPs. The yankees are the exact opposite of everything you’ve learned about the Japanese. If the Japanese as a people are extraordinarily reserved an aware of their surroundings, these youths are the most obnoxious, thoughtless people you will meet. Far worse than even the average obnoxious, American teenager, because in AMerica we have sort of a happy medium where everyone is kind of nice, kind of obnoxious. Hell, that should be our slogan. The rule is, you can’t have an anti without having a pro. That’s why nobody talks about guns in this country. They’ve reached the should-be obvious consensus in Japan that guns are bad. It was quickly decided upon and then never brought up again. I guess you could say that being considerate is sort of the Japanese equivalent of the right to bear arms in America. You’ve got all these people who are hardcore FOR it, so naturally there’s going to be a large, vocal opposition. It all boils down to simple science, really. For every action, there is an equal and opposite mullet punk with his slack-jawed girlfriend.

Yesterday appeared to be the “not goods” convention at Gusto, and they were present in what had to be record numbers. Their table won the Tônô regional award for Most Blonde or Lesbian Hair Amassed at One Venue. Whenever one of them said something particularly slack-jawed and devoid of substance, the other thirty of them would explode into obnoxious guffawing. “UHYAH-HYAH-HYAH-HYAH-HYAH!!!” It was drowning out the music from my sound-canceling headphones. It was drowning out the thinking in my brain. Their laughter was louder than my own consciousness. I theorized that this, too, is a calculated act performed to sock it to the conformoids of Japan. Every oversized huff of laughter is an assault on Japanese decency. “Eat this, you automatons!” they shout, and then all do exactly the same thing with rehearsed precision. Yes, we have such bullshit and such bullshitters in America, too, only there we don’t call them “not goods” or “yankees”, we call them douches.

Seeing red, I dug into my goddamn Play-Doh. “Whatever happened to Bamiyan?” I muttered.

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